Compulsory SRE? How about we stop teaching children that their consent doesn’t matter in the first place.


I just read this article by Dr Elly Hanson about the “radical overhaul of sex and relationship education (SRE)” recently announced by the government.

She makes some really important points about the current situation, and at the end calls for sex and relationship education that is “available to everyone… well resourced and embedded within a wider curriculum”.

I wonder if Dr Hanson is aware of unschooling, I would have expected her to flag it up in her article if she was, accompanied by the fact that mainstream schooling – where this SRE is supposed to take place – is fundamentally non-consensual, and that this might be a problem that no amount of SRE is going to fix.

Herein lies the important question:

Rather than trying to teach consent, why don’t we stop teaching that consent doesn’t matter?

Our culture normalises that children’s consent does not matter. We usually don’t ask, we don’t wait for a reply, we don’t take the time to explain. Children are often deprived of the opportunity to consent in the home, and critically, in the school environment. It is common that even if children self-advocate, their wishes are overridden.

Ask yourself this: how often are children given the opportunity to consent to their relationships and experiences when they are at school?

First they are generally told that they have to go (although it is of course perfectly legal for children to pursue their education outside of school through home education and unschooling), so straight away are often deprived of the opportunity to consent to the environment in which they spend a significant amount of their time. Once at school, they are told what to do, when and with whom. They are told what they will be learning, and how, when they can play, when they can talk to their friends, when and where they can move around.

Often times they are told what they have to wear and look like, very specifically, and what they can eat – sometimes they are even told what order they have to eat it in.

It isn’t until people are 14 years old that they are given a say in what they study at school, and even then, their options are strictly controlled.

Consent isn’t something you can teach, it is an experience and a feeling. When someone asks you for your consent, to be able to consent in an meaningful way, a person needs to be able to pause, think and reflect – Do I want to do this? Do I want this to happen to me? – without coercion. They experience a feeling of being in control of their own destiny, of looking within themselves, to see if they do indeed want to consent to what is being proposed, or not. They need to know that the person asking for their consent genuinely means it, and will respect their response, in order for the consent to be meaningful.

Trying to ‘teach’ this, whilst persistently exposing children to a non-consensual environment, I just don’t see how it works.

What we should be doing, is not un-teaching consent in the first place. Normalise consent in children’s every day lives and environment, from birth, and your SRE is done. No child is too young to know that their body and their minds are their own, that their say matters, and that other people, of any age, should respect them. Children who grow in an environment where their voice and consent matters, easily recognise what is non-consensual, and understand that it is unacceptable.

Having the opportunity to consent should be a base line experience, not a novelty or add on. It should be a lived experience so that it is taken for granted as normal, so that people can understand how to navigate this world in a way that maintains their physical, sexual and emotional safety.

The coercive nature of schooling and traditional parent child relationships normalises and teaches coercive relationships and behaviour – this is the exact opposite of consent. If we want children to understand consent, we have to live it with them.

To those who are really committed to SRE that genuinely makes a difference, I suggest getting behind consent based education from birth, researching unschooling as an alternative to coercive and non-consent based mainstream schooling, and I encourage you to challenge the countless normalised examples of children being deprived of their autonomy and consent in their everyday lived experiences.

5 thoughts on “Compulsory SRE? How about we stop teaching children that their consent doesn’t matter in the first place.

  1. This is a great observation. I often ask my daughter “do you want to…” but the energy behind it is directive and i often proceed as if she has said “yes” without waiting for her response. I will try to practice teaching consent it but think that without some coersion and authoritative guidance, many children would resist cultivating healthy habits such as : brushing and flossing, going to be on time, having a preference for healthy food, being safe, limiting tv and device time etc.. etc

  2. Thanks for your article – I do share your concerns around consent. Ideally I would really love the schools to be transformed into havens of consent and society to be transformed (basic living wage) so that all or most of the childcare doesn’t fall to the women. Whether officially single or a single parent within a relationship, in most of the families I know including my own the mother does most of the childcare. I didn’t imagine it would be like this for me, but that’s the way it’s turned out. I considered unschooling but I don’t want my son to see me giving up everything for him, I would be too frustrated, it’s been nearly 4 years now and I’m desperate to get back to my music, which is what I love doing and a little more freedom, although I won’t be able to do it as much as I’d like…plus I don’t want him growing up thinking that women are *just* (I know it’s not just as it is a humongous task!) mothers and can’t do other stuff too. In my situation, without the support of a second adult I don’t think unschooling is possible. I will be considering flexi schooling as a middle ground, and talking to the teachers/headmasters with my suggestions.

  3. This is great. At school, my son was forced to eat a food he said no to, forced to wear a coat when we said it was OK that he didn’t, and overall taught his consent didn’t matter at all. After less than half a year, we’re unschooling. I’m thrilled about that, but wish school was very different.

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